Romanian Red Cross workers hand out blankets to refugees from Ukraine who crossed the border at Sighetu Marmatiei, Romania, shortly before midnight on February 28.
Sighetu Marmatiei, Romania CNN  — 

Elena Holitsyna and her daughter, Valerie, were exhausted by the time they arrived in Sighetu Marmatiei, Romania, and were greeted by dozens of volunteers and a little girl handing out yellow tulips.

They had spent four days crisscrossing Ukraine, hoping to find safety, each day bringing with it more news of Russian soldiers advancing through their country. 

“Last week, we had a life. We had plans,” the 39-year-old, dressed in a white coat stained from the arduous journey, said. “And now, our life is this,” she said, sobbing amid her possessions – the few pieces of luggage they’d packed in a rush to flee Kyiv. Valerie, 16, clutched the Ukulele she got just last week.

The day before the Russian invasion, Holitsyna, a French teacher, was teaching vocabulary, while Valerie was planning to buy a gift for her half-sister’s birthday. “She turned three yesterday,” Valerie said. 

Now they are hundreds of miles apart. Valerie’s half-sister is staying with her mother in her maternal grandparents’ village.

Holitsyna’s brother had driven them toward the border while her partner, a doctor at a Kyiv hospital, remained in the city to treat the wounded. “My heart is in two,” broken, she said. “Part is with Valerie and part is with the man I love.”

Initially, Holitsyna’s brother had headed for Lviv, she said, “but there are tens of thousands of people waiting” to cross into Poland, so they made no attempt to queue there, opting to drive to Romania instead. 

“This isn’t the first time this has happened, but it is the worst,” Holitsyna said. 

The family started a new life in Kyiv after being uprooted in 2014 when Russian-backed separatists occupied the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine, which was their home.

Now, under a tent set up by volunteers, Holitsyna, Valerie and Holitsyna’s 64-year-old father waited for a relative who relocated to Bulgaria in 2014, and who had been driving overnight to reach them in this hilly, sparsely-populated region.

They are among the 677,000 people who have fled their homes in Ukraine in less than a week, according to the UNHCR, which fears it could become “Europe’s largest refugee crisis this century.”

They are seeking refuge from the Russian invasion that has upended international politics and triggered the greatest security crisis in Europe since the Cold War

UNHCR has issued an appeal for $1.7 billion USD in aid, estimating that 12 million people in Ukraine could be left in need of relief and protection, with a further four million expected to need help in neighboring countries. 

Meanwhile, the UN says that at least 102 civilians have been killed across the country and 304 injured, though those figures are likely underestimated.

As Ukraine’s European neighbors pledged to welcome the country’s citizens with open arms, many refugees first fled to Lviv, a large city just over two hours’ drive from the Polish border. But Ukrainian-Polish border crossings have now become bottlenecked, with refugees reporting having to wait in seemingly endless lines in the freezing weather.

Accounts such as these are forcing many of those desperate to get out to head south instead, including to Romania, the EU country with which Ukraine shares the longest border.

The night before Holitsyna made it to the border, a group of 29 students from Egypt arrived in Sighetu Marmatiei shortly before midnight following a harrowing journey from Kharkiv.

They said they had hoped to hold out in Ukraine’s second-largest city, huddling in the subway for shelter from Russian attacks until Saturday. But on Sunday they decided to make their way to a train station instead. 

“We had to fight to get on the train,” said Mohammed Abdel-Barry, a 23-year-old medical student. “It was so crowded; there were many, many people.” Unable to cross the crowded border to Poland, and without a support network of people able to help, they paid $3,000 to be driven here. It was “everything we had,” Abdel-Barry said. 

Their parents, back in Egypt, were worried sick Abdel-Barry said, before he boarded a bus to the Romanian capital of Bucharest.

Other than some foreign students and a large group of Nigerians, most of those in Sighetu Marmatiei are women with children. Ukrainian men between the ages of 18 and 60 are not permitted to leave the country, though most are determined to remain anyway, according to their families. 

“He will go to a free city and help our soldiers,” Marina Komysheva, 38, said of her husband.

She and her daughters, Yeva, 16, and Nikita, 7, were driven to the border by her husband, who owns a business in the southeastern city of Melitopol.

Komysheva has no idea when they might meet again as she does not feel safe returning until Russian forces leave Ukraine. 

“I hate them,” she said, as Yeva clutched their small dogs in her arms. “I hate them since 2014, since they attacked Donetsk.” In their purple suitcase, she carries documents, clothes, and laptops – the girls will need to continue to study, she said. 

Like Komysheva’s husband, Holitsyna’s brother also turned back after dropping his family at the border. Not just because he had to, but because “he wants to fight in Kyiv,” she said. And she only just managed to persuade her aging father to join them in leaving Kyiv.

As she spoke, her phone kept pinging with messages from her students and friends – many of whom are now trapped in Kyiv – everyone asking, “Are you OK?”

Just before leaving the border for the last leg of her journey to safety – an almost 1,000-kilometer drive to Burgas in Bulgaria, where another of her brothers lives, Holitsyna said all she wanted was to return to Ukraine.

“It’s our home,” she said.